Cristian Fernandez, the 13-year-old boy Florida prosecutors have accused of killing his 2-year-old half-brother, will stand trial for first-degree murder on March 4. Cristian’s defense team, a group of Jacksonville lawyers who have taken up his case pro bono, had sought to have the charges dropped after a recent Supreme Court ruling threw Florida’s sentencing scheme into doubt. But on Tuesday, Fourth Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper dismissed that request as “premature.”
Cristian “is yet to be convicted of the crime for which he is charged,” Cooper wrote in her three-paragraph decision. “Through the indictment, [he] has received all notice due to him at this time.”
The defense had pointed to last June’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court held that a mandatory sentence of life without parole was unconstitutional when applied to a juvenile. Because Florida law mandates either the death penalty or life without parole for anyone convicted of first-degree murder, Cristian’s lawyers argued, there was no applicable law under which the boy could be charged. (The Supreme Court previously held that juveniles cannot face the death penalty.) As a result, they said, Cristian had not received notice of the possible punishment he could face, a violation of the Due Process Clause.
Cooper rejected that claim, reasoning that Miller only prohibits a mandatory sentence of life without parole. So long as the sentencing court follows certain procedures required by Miller—such as considering Cristian’s age and other relevant characteristics—Cooper explained that “the potential maximum sentence a juvenile could constitutionally face if convicted of first-degree murder is still” life without parole. Hank Coxe, a member of Fernandez’s defense team, said in a statement following the decision: “We understand Judge Cooper’s ruling. It will not distract us from our commitment to fight the continued prosecution” of Cristian as an adult, “exposing him to a life in prison without parole.”
Fernandez was indicted in March 2011, when he was a 12-year-old sixth-grader at Kernan Middle School in Jacksonville. He had been arrested after his 25-year-old mother, Biannela Susana, returned home after getting a call from Cristian to find her other son, David, beaten unconscious. Prosecutors say Fernandez caused the fatal injuries by slamming him into a bookshelf. Fernandez initially told police that David had fallen off his bunk bed.
The defense alleges that Cristian, who will have been in custody for nearly two years by the time of trial, had already suffered a life of physical and emotional abuse when he was arrested.
When he was 2, passers-by found him naked, dirty, and alone in a parking lot. When Cristian was 11, his stepfather shot himself in the head after he learned the police planned to arrest him on charges of beating Cristian.
Cristian “is yet to be convicted of the crime for which he is charged,” the judge wrote. “Through the indictment, [he] has received all notice due to him at this time.”
Cristian’s case has been spotlighted by advocates of less-harsh sentencing of juveniles. Among other shows of support, a Facebook page has been created in defense of Cristian [http://www.facebook.com/pages/Support-Cristian-Fernandez/155817627820236], and a petition at change.org calling for him to be tried as a juvenile had garnered more than 194,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
Carol Torres, whose grandson was in the same gym class with Cristian, called Cooper’s ruling “an abuse of power.” “Cristian is a very sweet kid,” Torres said. “They’re taking advantage of a child here.”
But some legal experts say Tuesday’s decision may actually allow Cristian to walk free sooner than he might have otherwise. Harry Shorstein, a former State Attorney for Florida’s Fourth Circuit, said that if Cooper had granted the defense’s request to drop the charges, “the appeals process might have been very lengthy and it would have ultimately been a disservice” to Cristian, who would have to remain behind bars during the appeals.
“I would have liked to see the case move more quickly,” Shorstein said, “but with a case as complex as this one, two years from indictment to trial is not an unreasonable amount of time.” Prosecutors said they would continue to move forward with Cristian’s prosecution. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 29.